Vancouver scientists discover subgroups in childhood brain cancer

Vancouver, BC – Paediatric cancer patients are one step closer to being treated with new, less toxic and more precise drug therapies. In partnership with clinicians at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Ontario and 46 cancer centres around the world, scientists at the BC Cancer Agency’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) are obtaining a DNA-level understanding of medulloblastoma, the most common form of childhood cancer. Funded in part by Genome British Columbia, the project was officially launched in Vancouver on January 30, 2012 and is already making waves in the scientific community. Recent discoveries by the Medulloblastoma Advanced Genomics International Consortium (MAGIC) team will be published today in the prestigious journal Nature.

Researchers at the GSC will conduct RNA, micro RNA and DNA sequencing for over 1,000 tissue samples obtained from children who have had medulloblastoma. Armed with this analysis the MAGIC team is basing its work around the understanding that medulloblastoma can be stratified into four distinct subgroups, each of which has a different prognosis when treated with chemotherapy, radiation and drug therapy. “We are very pleased that we have been able to produce such significant results so early in our study, and that we have the opportunity to disseminate our results in the journal Nature to the broader biomedical community,” said Dr. Marco Marra, Director of the GSC and project co-leader.

Identified simply as Groups 1 through 4 the published discovery focuses on Groups 3 and 4, which comprise patients with the worst prognosis. The article in Nature eloquently summarizes a large body of research, focusing on the molecular makeup of medulloblastoma cancer and identification of changes, specifically somatic copy number aberrations in each of the four subgroups. In Group 4 a gene associated with Parkinson’s disease is duplicated and in Group 3 another gene is translocated.

These events are significant, and scientists’ understanding of them offers potential treatment targets for patients classified in those groups.

To identify subgroup-specific therapies, the team is concentrating on identifying subgroup-specific drug targets, especially for those two groups with the worst prognosis. Currently the MAGIC group has identified potential drug targets which are specific to Group 3 medulloblastoma patients –- patients who are facing the worst prognosis. “What is even more exciting is the fact that therapies have already been developed and successfully tested against these targets for other types of cancer,” said Dr. Michael Taylor, project co-leader, senior author of the paper and paediatric neurosurgeon and scientist at SickKids.

Group 2 has also been analyzed and variations in DNA makeup identified will help with treatment as well. Group 1 identified no changes and typically has very good reactions to treatment and a healthier prognosis. “Acceptance by Nature for publication is a great honour and a real indicator that our work is headed in the right direction and of significance to other groups,” said Taylor. “Our research is getting closer to our ultimate goal -– making a difference in the lives of children who suffer from this devastating disease.”

Research from the MAGIC project is anticipated to transform the way that children with medulloblastoma are treated.  Funders of the project include Genome BC, Genome Canada, the Terry Fox Research Institute and other partners. “We congratulate this research team on this significant paper published today in Nature: this collaborative study, involving dozens of investigators and authors, sets an excellent example of how translational research can progress. For translational cancer research, where there is a lot of heterogeneity in the cancers being studied, working together is vital for accessing a large number of cases and for obtaining results more quickly," said Dr. Victor Ling, president and scientific director of the Terry Fox Research Institute.

“It is gratifying to see such rapid outcomes from this landmark project,” said Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. “This is genomics research in action -- project outcomes that directly lead to a change in clinical care -- and Genome BC is proud to be a part in such important work”.

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About Genome British Columbia:

Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $550M in research projects and science and technology platforms. Working with governments, academia and industry across sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture, environment, bioenergy, mining and human health, the goal of the organization is to generate social and economic benefits for British Columbia and Canada.  www.genomebc.ca

About the BC Cancer Agency

The BC Cancer Agency, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, is committed to reducing the incidence of cancer, reducing the mortality from cancer, and improving the quality of life of those living with cancer. It provides a comprehensive cancer control program for the people of British Columbia by working with community partners to deliver a range of oncology services, including prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, research, education, supportive care, rehabilitation and palliative care. For more information, visit www.bccancer.ca.

Contact:

Jennifer Boon

Communications Specialist, Genome BC

Cell: 778-327-8374

Email: jboon@genomebc.ca

BC Cancer Agency

Media Pager: 604-871-5699

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